AS dinner dishes are cleared away and the joking dies down, the evening's work at the Community School begins. Tonight a slide show about a Navajo reservation starts things off. Then on to tutoring sessions in math, grammar, and writing.
There are no formal classes here, and the eight students don't even spend most of their time at the school, which occupies an old white farmhouse on Washington Street, just up a hill from Camden's quaint tourist magnet of a waterfront. But this is late winter, with snow and slush everywhere and not a tourist in sight.
What is in sight is the Community School's twice-yearly graduation. Another six-month term is ending, and another small group of teenagers has moved from being high school dropouts, with bleak prospects ahead, toward a hopeful future.
This small, community-based ``alternative school'' offers one-on-one teaching and counseling, plus a work/study element to build a sense of responsibility and self-worth. Students regain a connection to learning.
But how does a program like the Community School relate to the broader high-school dropout problem?
The national dropout rate in the United States - based on the number of ninth graders who don't go on to graduation three years later - is at least 25 percent, says Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, S.C. In urban areas, he says, the rate is typically 35 to 50 percent.
But if you examine census data for people 19 to 25 years old, only 8 to 12 percent don't have a high school diploma or high school equivalency degree, Mr. Smink points out. That's because many of them return for some form of schooling after they've dropped out.
Alternative schools exist in all corners of the United States, and they play a significant role in addressing the needs of returning students, Smink says. Most dropouts ``won't return to the traditional high school,'' he says, but they will look into places that emphasize work/study and offer programs with tutoring or mentoring.
The students themselves are the real story here, says Bob Dickens, the Community School's white-bearded, bluff academic coordinator, pointing to two or three of them still lingering around the dinner table.
No one attends this school unless he or she really wants to. Prospective students are extensively interviewed by a staff member. The questioning is often personal and pointed, and individuals with histories of violence are screened out.
Following the interview, the young people have to formally apply in writing. If accepted, they embark on multiple crash courses to catch up with all the academic work they've missed during their chaotic public-school careers.
That work takes place mostly in the evenings. The students' daylight hours are spent at various jobs they've gotten at local businesses, nonprofit agencies, or schools. The jobs are a lesson in responsibility, and they help pay for room and board at the Community School.
One student, Scott McLean, breaks into a wry grin and comments, ``If you have a kid, tell him to stay in school. It's easier.''
This school may be hard, but there's no shortage of applicants. The waiting list always has 40 or 50 names on it. And the winnowing process can be difficult, says Emanuel Pariser, co-founder of the school. Sometimes, he acknowledges, it has to boil down to finances. The full program here - including later follow-up efforts and the vocational aspects - costs about $17,000 per student per term; students without financial means often have to wait, in hopes that some new scholarship money will come through.
Most students attend with at least an $8,000 scholarship, Mr. Pariser says. Maine residents make up about 95 percent of the students, but young people from Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have also attended, though parents or school districts have to pick up a greater part of their tab, because the state funds received by the school apply only to Maine residents.
A Community School diploma is equivalent to a private high school diploma, and it's costly. But Pariser points out that for most students the program condenses three years of high school - which in Maine's public school system costs about $15,000 - into six months.
Funding comes partly from the state's Department of Corrections and Office of Substance Abuse, partly from donations, and partly from tuition that families and local school districts can chip in. The state's contribution, Pariser notes, has shrunk over the past three years.
Despite constant funding challenges, the school has kept its doors open for 20 years, taking a small number of high school dropouts - 16 youths per year, typically eight girls, eight boys - and steering them toward a diploma.
Not all the students finish the six months. Pariser says 247 have stayed two months or more, and 195 have earned diplomas. About 30 percent have gone on to college.
But even the ones who don't finish, or who end the term with work undone, aren't cast adrift. Through its outreach program, the school keeps in touch with them and often arranges for further tutoring. Many eventually complete the requirements and get their sheepskins.
There's as least as much art as science to this process, says Pariser, whose longish hair, full beard, and casual manners could mark him as an ``aging hippie'' - a description he and co-founder Dora Lievow can laugh about. The informality of the place has helped make many a student feel more at home.
Pariser says he doesn't know just why something ``clicks'' and students who had ignored or dreaded math, for example, suddenly understand fractions. Clearly, the one-on-one tutoring is ideal for most of the students here, who have seldom had anyone take a personal interest in their academic progress before.
But the environment of a caring community, essentially a new family of staff (one of whom stays at the school each night) and peers, may be equally important.
The kids are responsible for regular chores around the school, including cooking. (Tonight was Minguan Sapiel's turn; she whipped together a stir-fry that won proposals of marriage from some around the table.)
The students often spur each other on to complete an academic assignment or get to work on time, and they know the rules - such as no drugs, alcohol, sexual relations, or demeaning talk.
``In an interesting way, for all our `alternative' trappings, we have a very traditional value system: Be responsible, go to work, and take charge of your future,'' Ms. Lievow says.
Pariser and Lievow founded the school shortly after they graduated from college in the early 1970s. They were barely older than their students then. But as they've raised children of their own, the school has evolved and matured too. They are always in the process of ``revisioning,'' Lievow says.
Some ideas are constants, however, such as the need to understand each student's individual weaknesses and strengths. In reading, for example, the staff tries to assess a student's ability to deal with detail and recognize the difference between facts and opinions. ``These are crucial skills no matter what you're doing,'' Mr. Dickens says.
What can alternatives like the Community School teach the public schools as educators push toward to the national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2000?
``Keeping it small'' is definitely one key to the Community School's success, says Katharine Lustman-Findling, a member of the school's national advisory board. Her teaching experience ranges from running a nursery school to conducting post-graduate seminars at Yale University. She says Pariser's ``method of dealing with people on an individual basis'' could be applied elsewhere.
Pariser is convinced that if public schools could apply just a few key concepts, ``the test scores would follow.'' He suggests that public school districts could start with work/learning opportunities, an adviser/advisee relationship between teachers and students, and giving an identity to smaller units within larger schools.
A number of school districts around the country have experimented with breaking large public high schools into smaller units that can give students personalized attention. There have been some notable successes, such as the Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, New York.
You would somehow have to duplicate the dedication and commitment of the staff at the Community School, says Julius Richmond, professor emeritus of health policy at Harvard Medical School and another advisory board member. The success of the school reflects the imaginative approach of the people who ``put it all together,'' he says.
One part of the Community School's approach that impresses Ms. Lustman-Findling is the commitment to ``aftercare,'' or follow-up.
The school sometimes works for additional months, or even years, with students who don't earn their diplomas during the normal six-month residency in Camden. ``There's a flexibility in that program that's not available in most programs,'' she says.
But there are no formulas in these matters, Lustman-Findling adds. ``So often in American education we want a quick fix - to raise test scores and get them back in school.''
In a room off the dining area, Amy Malone, a tall, soft-spoken girl, is tapping away at a computer, putting some finishing touches on an essay on the children's author Dr. Seuss.
She particularly appreciates the school's lack of ``busy work, which I hate.'' At public school she had felt coerced to do things that made no sense to her. ``I can't read a book if I don't like it, and I can't write about it if I don't like it,'' she says.
Earlier in the evening, Amy had received back in the mail another essay, a comparison of the work of authors Franz Kafka and Ken Kesey. At Pariser's suggestion, Amy's writing had been sent for evaluation to a faculty member he knows at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. The professor said it was comparable to college sophomore work and would get a B-plus at that level.
The school tries to build on students' interests. Minguan, whose name means ``rainbow'' in her native Passamaquoddy, has been able to explore her Indian background in a way that was never allowed in public school. She is now deep in conversation with Frank Trocco, who gave the slide show, discussing the best books by and about native Americans.
In another room, teacher/counselor Buck O'Herin helps another student, John Galasso, complete his post-Community School plan. This is a requirement for all students before they leave - to chart a course for their future.
John, who has the manner of someone perpetually ready to crack a joke, is serious now. He's confronting ``writer's block'' in filling out an application to the Audubon Expedition Institute in nearby Belfast, Maine, which he'd like to attend next fall.
In the kitchen, Rikki Thorvold Nielsen - who had proclaimed at the slide show's end, ``I'm outta here, I've got grammar to learn'' - goes over the rules of capitalization with tutor Rick Thibodeau.
There's a feeling of winding down. Graduation is barely a week away. Of the eight who started out six months ago, six will get their diplomas on schedule. Only one will have to keep in touch to finish some academic, work, or tuition obligations. Those arrangements are being made by outreach director Rhett Hutto. ``We're trying to diminish the anxiety of leaving this place they love and hate at the same time,'' she says.
``I hate endings, so I don't like it when these guys leave,'' Dickens says. But the next beginning - eight more high school dropouts who want to pry open their futures - will soon arrive.